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Back Door Travel with Rick Steves

Rick’s Picks

The Best and Worst Of Europe—with Apologies to None

Good travel writers should make hard choices and give readers solid opinions. Just so nobody will accuse me of gutlessness, I’ve assembled a pile of strong opinions—my personal feelings after 100 months of European travel.

Let’s start with the dullest corner of the British Isles, south Scotland. The area south of Edinburgh is so boring the Romans decided to block it off with Hadrian’s Wall. The wall, near the town of Haltwhistle, is far more intriguing than the area beyond it. Like Venice’s St. Mark’s Square at midnight and Napoleon’s tomb in Paris, this sight covers history buffs with goose bumps.

London, York, Bath, and Cambridge are the most interesting cities in England. Belfast, Liverpool, and Glasgow are quirky enough to be called interesting. Dublin is dull, Oxford pales next to Cambridge, and Stratford is little more than Shakespeare’s house—and it’s as dead as he is.

The west coast of Ireland (the Dingle Peninsula), Snowdon National Park, and the Windermere Lakes District are the most beautiful natural regions of Great Britain and Ireland, while the York Moors disappoint all creatures great and small.

The friendliest people in Europe are the Irish, the Sicilians, and my Norwegian relatives. The meanest are those tourists who refuse to understand the French and the legions of cleaning ladies who toil in Europe’s underground public toilets. The WC ladies, at the least, deserve our patience. Don’t complain about the French postal workers: they’re every bit as cheery, speedy, and multilingual as ours are here in the U.S. (By the way, the fastest way to get a letter home from Italy is to use the Vatican post office or to forget it in your suitcase.)

Italy’s island of Capri, the German town of Berchtesgaden, Ireland’s Blarney Stone (kissed by countless tourists to get the “gift of gab”), and the French Riviera in July and August are Europe’s top tourist traps. Extra caution is merited in southwest England, a minefield of tourist traps. The British are masters at milking every conceivable attraction for all it’s worth. Here are some booby traps: the Devil’s Toenail (a rock that looks just like . . . a toenail), Land’s End (pay, pay, pay), and Cornwall’s cloying Clovelly (a one-street town lined with knickknack shops selling the same goodies—like “clotted cream that you can mail home”).

But Tintagel’s castle, famous as the legendary birthplace of King Arthur, offers thrilling windswept and wave-beaten ruins. The town of Tintagel does everything in its little power to exploit the profitable Arthurian legend. There’s even a pub in town called the Excali Bar.

Sognefjord is Norway’s most spectacular fjord. The Geiranger fjord—while famous as a cruise ship stop—is a disappointment. The most boring countryside is Sweden’s (I am Norwegian and therefore a little prejudiced), although Scandinavia’s best medieval castle is in the Swedish town of Kalmar.

Geneva (Switzerland) and Grenoble (France) share the “nice place to live but I wouldn’t want to visit” award. Both are pleasantly situated on a lake—like Buffalo and Cleveland. And both are famous, although name familiarity is a rotten reason to go somewhere. If you want a Swiss city, see Bern, but it’s almost criminal to spend a sunny Swiss day anywhere but high in the Alps.

Bordeaux must mean boredom in some ancient language. If I were offered a free trip to that town, I’d stay home and clean the fridge. Connoisseurs visit for the wine, and there’s a wine-tourist information bureau in Bordeaux which, for a price, will bus you out of town into the more interesting wine country nearby.

Andorra, a small country in the Pyrenees between France and Spain, is as scenic as any other chunk of those mountains. People from all over Europe flock to Andorra to take advantage of its famous duty-free shopping. As far as Americans are concerned, Andorra is just a big Spanish-speaking Radio Shack. There are no bargains here that you can’t get at home. Enjoy the Pyrenees with less traffic elsewhere.

Germany’s famous Black Forest disappoints more people than it excites. If that’s all Germany offered it would be worth seeing, but I’d say the average American visitor who’s seen more than three trees in one place would prefer Germany’s Romantic Road and Bavaria to the east, the Rhine and Mosel country to the north, the Swiss Alps to the south, and France’s Alsace region to the west—all high points that cut the Black Forest down to stumps.

Norway’s Stavanger, famous for nearby fjords and its status as an oil boom town, is a large port that’s about as exciting as, well, put it this way: emigrants left it in droves to move to the wilds of Minnesota. Time in western Norway is better spent in and around Bergen.

Bucharest, the capital of Romania, has little to offer. Its top-selling postcard is of the Intercontinental Hotel. If you’re heading from eastern Europe to Greece, skip Thessaloníki, which deserves its place in the Bible but doesn’t belong in travel guidebooks.

The most worthless opinions are those that judge and compare the merits of airlines and traveler’s checks. They’re all good enough. If you arrive in Europe safely on the day you had hoped to, it was a great flight. And if you lose your traveler’s checks, you deserve a delay. Will somebody please give Karl Malden a money belt?

Europe’s most scenic train ride is across south Switzerland from Chur to Martigny. The most scenic boat ride is from Stockholm to Helsinki—countless islands and blondes. Europe’s most exciting country is Italy, although to most, after a week in Italy, Switzerland starts looking better and better. Europe’s most underrated sight is Rome’s ancient seaport Ostia Antica; its most misunderstood wine—Portugal’s vinho verde (green wine); and its most overrated and polluted city is Athens.

A hundred years ago, Athens was a sleepy town of 8,000 people with a pile of ruins in its backyard. Today, it’s a giant mix of concrete, smog, noise, tourists, and four million Greeks. See the four major attractions (the Acropolis, Agora, Plaka, and great National Archaeological Museum) and get out to the islands or countryside.

The tackiest souvenirs can be found next to Pisa’s tower and in Lourdes. The most intriguing bookstore is the world’s largest secondhand bookstore in Hay-on-Wye in Wales.

The best French chateau is Chantilly near Paris. The best look at Gothic is the Saint Chapelle church in Paris. The top two castles are Germany’s Berg Eltz on the Mosel river and Italy’s Reifenstein near the Brenner Pass in the north. Lisbon, Oslo, Stockholm, and Brussels are the most underrated big cities. For romance, it’s Varenna on Italy’s Lake Como.

The biggest mistakes that tourists make: packing too much, relying on outdated guidebooks, not wearing a money belt, leaving home with too many hotel reservations, and taking other people’s opinions too seriously. Happy travels!

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